Reflection on the Catholic Catechism: Understanding Our Knowledge of God
Our nature is to desire that which is supernatural, that we are created by God for God
We have considered some of the ways we come to know God in the world and through human experience. But we might ask, how reliable or meaningful is our knowledge? The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers us some compelling answers.
Let us begin by reviewing some of the ways that we come to know God. As I noted in a previous article, some of the ways that we can know God from the physical world are through rational arguments and order and beauty in the universe.
One of the arguments I discussed is known as contingency. It basically says that all things in the physical world are contingent upon something else for their existence, that everything is a receiver of existence. But there has to be something that originates its own existence, something that does not receive existence, but simply has existence. This thing is God.
Another way that we can come to know God is through order in the physical world. I used the Big Bang theory as an example. It supports the idea of a creator and offers many examples of order in the universe. This example helped us realize that the universe not only displays intricate detail, order and beauty at all levels, but it also reveals intelligent design and power beyond the visible world.
In another article, I discussed some of the ways that we can know God through human experience. According to the Catechism: "With his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God's existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the 'seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,' can have its origin only in God" (33).
When we take a close look at human experience, we find that human nature desires what nature cannot give us, that "our nature contradicts nature," as the Catholic philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft puts it. However, this apparent contradiction is not telling us that our nature and desires are misleading us. It is telling us that our nature is to desire that which is supernatural, that we are created by God for God.
Now that we have reviewed some of the ways we come to know God, perhaps we can answer our original question: How reliable or meaningful is our knowledge? To answer this question, we will look at three aspects of our knowledge: the idea of certainty, how we can speak about God, and barriers to reason.
Paragraph 31 in the Catechism says that our knowledge about God is not based on proofs like we find in science. Rather, it is based on compelling reasons that provide us with a high degree of certainty. The Catechism refers to these reasons as "converging and convincing arguments."
In order to visualize what these reasons look like, imagine that the authorities suspect you are an imposter. Although you could not prove their suspicions false with scientific-like certainty, you could provide many converging and convincing reasons to refute their suspicions.
For example, you could show them your birth certificate, your driver's license, and your social security number. You could also tell them where you lived growing up, what schools you attended, and what companies you worked for. When they check out your information, they will probably find your picture in your school yearbooks, and they will find people who remember you.
The individual reasons you gave the authorities do not have the power to disprove their suspicions, but taken together, your reasons become powerful as they point to or converge on your true identity. This convergence is so convincing and compelling that the authorities can feel certain that you are not an imposter.
Likewise, our knowledge of God can be certain based on converging and convincing reasons. But we also need to remember that our reasons have to be seen in relation to each other and in the totality to which they belong, or they will not be meaningful let alone certain. Frank Sheed gives us a wonderful example of this in his book, Theology and Sanity.
It is common for lovers to become transfixed while gazing into the eyes of their beloved and drinking in their beauty. But the lover's trance, Sheed says, would fast be broken if their beloved handed them one of their eyes on a plate. The point is that "The eye needs to be seen in the face; its beauty, its meaning, its usefulness all come from its position in the face; and one who had seen eyes only on plates would never really have known them at all" (26).
So it is with all things. Everything must be seen in its totality, that is, in relation to the whole. This is especially necessary when we are dealing with fundamental things like God and reality. If you don't see God as the center of reality, you can have vast knowledge, but it is like a person "who should know all about the eye, never having seen a face."
But there remains a difficulty. Even though we can know about God with a high degree of certainty, God is a great mystery. He transcends our finite reason, so how can we speak about Him? Paragraph 39 in the Catechism says that despite God's transcendence, it is possible to speak about God to all men, and therefore with other religions, with unbelievers, with atheists, with philosophers, and with scientists.
However, the Catechism says that our starting point needs to be in "accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking" (40). In other words, we take the perfections of created things as our starting point. These perfections refer to the truth, goodness and beauty found in created things that reflect the infinite perfection of God. "All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God" (41). This is especially true for man, who is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 26-27).
The idea of taking the perfections of created things as our starting point is beautifully expressed in Psalm 94:9. It says, "Does the one who shaped the ear not hear? The one who formed the eye not see?" Here again, I find Sheed's explanation of this idea very helpful.
Sheed says that God must contain Himself in all of the things created by His hand. Since all (good) things owe their existence completely to God, this means all that they have is from Him. Therefore, all the perfections "must in some way be in Him." For instance, since man is capable of knowing and loving, God must know and love. Since man is a personal being, God too must be a personal being.
But our understanding of knowing, loving and personhood only represent the bare minimum we can say when we speak about God, because, as Sheed says, God is immeasurably higher than any created thing, including man. God's perfections are infinitely pure, incomprehensible, and inexpressible based on our human representations.
The Catechism qualifies our knowledge similarly. It says, "Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God" (42). "Likewise, we must recall that 'between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude'; and that 'concerning God we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him'" (43).
There is yet one other difficulty for us to discuss. It concerns certain barriers to our reason as a result of our fallen nature. Even though we can know about God and speak about Him, "we experience many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone" (CCC 37). Not only do the truths about God transcend the visible order of things, but Pope Pius XII reminds us that our ability to reason is hampered by sin.
In his encyclical, Humani Genesis, Pius XII says the human mind "is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequence of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful" (CCC 37).
Yet, even though our reason is limited and faulty, the Church maintains that we can rise above these difficulties and still come to know God with certainty. Furthermore, our ability to know God through the light of reason enables us to receive God's revelation of Himself. "Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation" (CCC 36).
So our knowledge of God does not depend solely on our efforts. God also reaches out to us by revealing Himself to us. But He does not oppose our reason. His revelation guides our reason and enables it to achieve even greater heights and certainty. The next chapter in the Catechism will discuss the revelation of God in more detail.
Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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